Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Online peer review writing groups

In talking with teachers about online writing courses (OWCs), I find myself circling back to some core teaching ideas, and one is that OWI appeals so strongly to me because the OWC becomes, especially when asynchronous forums are at its center, an ongoing peer review. And I sure do believe in peer review.

In OWCs, students are consistently reading, thinking about, and responding to each other’s writing. They are working with each other as writers. It’s serious work, non-surface work. In fact, an oft-encountered problem with “regular” peer review is that students who are not confident or are unsure how to respond turn into grammar guards/editors. You rarely see message board conversations that devolve into that, and when you do, it often looks like flaming.

Some of what makes peer review work so well online is simple: It’s easy to bring students together and share documents digitally. But using easy-to-facilitate groups can become an even more powerful part of the OWC experience. I often conduct my group online peer reviews similarly to how I would other peer reviews in terms of review instructions, but there are two major logistical differences: 1) reviewers are responsible for all drafts in their group, and 2) comments are not just additive; they must be cumulative. In other words, say Ariana posts her document and Alexa reviews it. Drew cannot just come along and review Ariana’s draft without also accounting for Alexa’s comments. The reviewer's writing challenge becomes more complex, and the reviewee must read and account for multiple, perhaps contradictory, comments. They can synthesize such comments and consult me – or the writing center or someone else.

Technology-wise, groups are easy. (I use Blackboard Learn in my courses and find, despite the vitriol often directed at Blackboard, that it mostly does everything I need it to do. That being said, I do think its Group function is not very good, but my understanding, based on a Bb Learn “listening session” I attended recently, is that Bb will soon improve this functionality.) In terms of group creation and maintenance, you can simply let the CMS randomly create the groups for you, or you can purposefully build groups based on various criteria, distributing students in ways you think make sense. Four is a good number of students in a group.

Exchanging documents is easy on message boards. They can simply use attachments. Or they could use Google Docs or something similar. They can respond back to drafts in a post within the group and/or make comments using Track Changes or other annotation software. 

You can also choose whether students remain in the same group all term or whether you reshuffle when a new assignment arises. There are good arguments for both.

The online peer review group is basically a writer's circle, and perhaps students who have a good experience in class will find ways to set up similar circles for their own writing projects.

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